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Blavatnik School of Government
Herzog & de Meuron

May 23, 2016 /

Oxford, United Kingdom

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_1.jpg The building's form makes an unapologetically contemporary visual impact on Walton Street. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

By Alice Haugh

The Blavatnik School forms the latest fragment in a patchwork of architectural influences along Jericho's Walton Street in Oxford. The building's bold silhouette stands proudly between the cool brutalism of Somerville College's 1967 Wolfson Building and the dilapidated Ionic portico of Freud's next door (formerly a Greek Revival church dating from 1836, the owner of whom fiercely opposed the new building). 

Oxford is an almost sacred territory for world-class education in literally any of its many famous colleges. The sheer level of historicism embedded in this city's fabric and composition is incredible, almost shocking.'/Jacques Herzog, Founding Partner

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On its north side the Blavatnik School faces onto the dilapidated ionic portico of Freud's Bar, formerly a Greek Revival church dating from 1836. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_3.JPG Along Walton Street to the south lies the cool brutalism of Somerville College's 1967 Wolfson Building. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

The School marks the south-west corner of the future Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, a campus for humanities research planned on the 10-acre site of a former hospital. Herzog & de Meuron's edifice to governance and public policy is one of the masterplan's first buildings to complete, having opened in November 2015. The structure's circular form has been interpreted as muted deference to Oxford's historic tradition of iconic rotunda buildings like the Sheldonian Theatre and the Bodleian Library. Ascan Mergenthaler, Senior Partner at Herzog & de Meuron, asserts that, 'The circular form is also an urban decision. The building is located at a corner of the masterplan that enables it to act like a gateway of pivot.'

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The building's main entrance onto Walton Street is surmounted by a wide oak bay which holds the largest double glazed single pane of glass in Europe. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

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The school's first floor 'window to the world' frames the view of the Oxford University Press building across Walton Street. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

The Blavatnik creates an unapologetically contemporary addition to the streetscape, holding its own against the neoclassical stone portico of Oxford University Press across the road. The school's first floor 'window to the world' frames this relationship with a dose of drama - at 10.5m x 3.2m it is the largest double glazed single pane of glass in Europe. The entranceway is marked by rich oak doors, turned bronze handles and imperial gilded lettering above the doorway. This stately expression of an institutional threshold continues the air of academic exclusivity which pervades Oxford. As is the norm in modern university buildings, public access into the Blavatnik School is sadly forbidden, blocked by a line of turnstiles just inside those majestic oak doors.

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The building's central atrium is imagined as a 'forum' for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © Iwan Baan

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_7.jpg The grand swirling atrium is lit by circular rooflights. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © Iwan Baan

Circles and spirals distinguish the form of the building both inside and out. The school's functions are housed in six offset stacked volumes, five of which are circular in plan. At the base, sunken below street level, are two lecture theatres, supplemented by a suite of flexible seminar rooms for teaching. As one moves up the building, a range of academic offices, research and study spaces enclose the cylindrical atrium - a classical plan which echoes those of university quads throughout the city. This kinetically charged space recalls the spiralling ramps of New York's Guggenheim, but with a pleasing irregularity. Yet one traditional marker of scholarly life is missing from the Blavatnik School: a library. Its interior suffers from a perplexing lack of books. Apparently an app has been developed to deliver reading matter to students, but this, opposite the largest university press in the world, seems a little unsatisfying.

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_8.jpg The circular motif pervades throughout the building, from offset floorplates to curving concrete stairwells. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © Iwan Baan

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In the tradition of early democratic forms, an amphitheatre is created at the base of the atrium. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_10.jpg The language of sleek curving forms continues within each lecture theatre. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_11.jpg Rich oak doors and imperial gilded lettering mark the doorways to lecture theatres and toilets. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

The building's materiality is surprisingly traditional in appearance, though stunningly detailed. An insulating double layered glass facade is supported by precast concrete masonry units which echo the Bath and Headington limestone visible throughout Oxford's built fabric. Mergenthaler explains that 'the moulded frames in which the [glass] panels sit are an abstract version of the typical stone architraves found on many historic buildings around Oxford.' But this combination feels unusually tame for an office as daring as Herzog & de Meuron, and one imagines the architects might have intended a more avant-garde material be used to express the structure, before local planners and adjacent property owners demanded contextual adherence. The building's glass provides a slightly disconcerting experience, offering clear views out to the fortunate few within, but a curiously reflective, opaque surface to outsiders looking in. In this respect, the new building is of a piece with the rest of Oxford, a city where the boundaries between public and private space are often unclear. Are those quads and cloisters actually open to the public - or do they offer mere glimpses into other worlds of scholarly privilege?

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_12.jpg An insulating double layered glass facade reflects James Gibbs'1794 Radcliffe Observatory. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

Blavatnik_School_of_Government_Herzog_and_de_Meuron_13.JPG The building's glass facade offers a curiously reflective, opaque surface to outsiders looking in. Blavatnik School of Government, Herzog & de Meuron © 2016 Alice Haugh

Last updated: May 23, 2016

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